Two minutes into Disney's Christopher Robin (not to be confused with 2017's Goodbye Christopher Robin), the tears began. "Seriously?" I scowled to myself, astonished that the sight of the the movie's slightly creepy, beady-eyed Pooh and his CGI stuffed animal pals sitting around a picnic table in the Hundred Acre Wood, reading a letter to Christopher Robin, could affect me that profoundly, that quickly. But it did.
Seated in front of me in the theater, two granddaughters lay their heads on their weeping grandmother’s shoulder. Every 20 minutes or so, the girls would tear their eyes from the screen and stare openly at their grandma’s face with a patient perplexity. To a kid, maybe, the "lessons" exemplified in Christopher Robin are obvious. Play is important. Work isn’t everything. But Grandma and I were crying because Christopher Robin, like the Paddington movies before it, is not a children’s movie. Christopher Robin and Paddington are movies that children enjoy, and adults need.
While the theaters for Christopher Robin this weekend will be certainly filled with kids, the movie’s central message will be directed at their parents, and any other adult in the theater. The movie’s main character is an adult worn down by the capitalist system, struggling to balance the necessities of a job with the actual stuff of life. Now middle-aged, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) is long estranged from the free-wheeling, curious routine he carried out as an 8-year-old. Christopher’s all-consuming job at a Big Bad Company shoves all other priorities, like his wife, Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and daughter, Madeline (a perfectly cast Bronte Carmichael), off to shiver in the corners. The one weekend Christopher Robin is set to return to his Sussex cottage and finally, finally unplug (or whatever the 1940s equivalent is), he’s forced to keep working towards a nearly impossible cost-cutting solution. Evelyn and Madeline leave him behind in their London flat, resigned in their confirmation that he really is a workaholic (and to think: this was work before email!).
In the mythology of Christopher Robin, our younger selves exist, wholly intact, somewhere beneath the layer of calcified hardness the years have deposited. Thanks to a little bit of narrative magic, Winnie the Pooh — whose every intonation is expressed perfectly by Jim Cummings — returns to Christopher’s life to chip away at his adult plaque, and let that hidden 8-year-old out for another romp through the woods. In fact, I'd say Christopher Robin walking around with Pooh is equivalent to an adult watching Christopher Robin. The movie bashes away at your cynicism until some forgotten priorities spool forth, seeming obvious, all of a sudden; until you cry six times, shaking your head at how far you've traveled since childhood.
And isn’t that the goal of so much pop culture we’ve seen sprouting memes and loyal followings lately? To be kind? To remind us to fill up our lives with friends, family, and honey (for Pooh) or marmalade (for Paddington). For obvious reasons, Christopher Robin will draw inevitable comparisons to Paddington. After all, the movies both feature yellow-tinged bears who speak with British accents and, aside from the occasional disastrous mess, drastically improve the lives of the people around them.
That said, Christopher Robin is a more overt rescue mission to save adult souls than Paddington, which is a full-blown (and wonderful) exercise in whimsy. Even the movies' color schemes denote their diverging outlook on the universe. Paddington is set in a pastel-tinged London, but in Christopher Robin’s post-war London, everything seems to match the color of rain. It’s a logical world, one without much space for work-life balance, let alone talking bears. Whereas in Paddington, the Bond family’s charming neighbors quickly accept that Paddington is a talking bear, Christopher Robin’s talking stuffed animal garners continual shock. The London in Christopher Robin threatens to subsume the lonely; in Paddington 2, the block’s lonely people get set up at the movie’s end. Essentially, the threat to Christopher Robin’s existence is immediate. If he doesn’t get his act together, his inner child could be gobbled up by a heffalump (the movie's version of a villain) and lost forever.
We don’t want to get gobbled up by heffalumps, deadlines, and taxes, either — and that’s where Paddington and Christopher Robin come in. These movies are part of a recent wave of pop culture works that seek to remind us of priorities that exist outside the economic system. Even the recent Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again falls into the category of pop culture that outright embraces the descriptors of goofy, silly, and sweet, instead of exchanging them for more highbrow adjectives. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again didn’t beat the original Mamma Mia by 20 Rotten Tomato percentage points because it’s a wildly better movie; it did because we needed it more. In this divided political landscape, when pop culture's not indulging our fears (see: The Handmaid's Tale), it's reminding us of our humanity.
The universe of Kind Pop Culture is governed by its own rules. Cher, the runaway star of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and the benevolent leader of this universe, recently declared Paddington the winner of the Best Actor Academy Award. Paddington graciously accepted.
Thank you very much Mrs Cher. I’m so pleased you liked my film. It’s very strange but Mrs Bird now won’t stop singing to me that if she could turn back time, she would find a way.— Paddington (@paddingtonbear) July 12, 2018
To continue the fantasy, I imagine that at the Kind Universe's Academy Awards, Pooh, that silly old bear, will give a host's speech full of Pooh-isms like, “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.” None of us will remember who won or lost. It was, as my elementary school coach used to emphasize, how we played the game that mattered.